Washington’s ambassador to Moscow has announced that he will return to the US for consultations, days after the Russian government recommended he leave the country during what it said was an “extremely tense situation”.
John Sullivan’s departure will leave both countries’ embassies without their top diplomats at a crucial moment, with Washington and Moscow recently announcing new sanctions, a Russian military buildup near Ukraine, and concerns about the opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s health while in detention.
“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit. I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between presidents Biden and Putin.”
Biden and Putin discussed a possible summit last week, but the Kremlin has said it would take time to organise and would be “impossible” to hold in the coming weeks.
Russia recalled its ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, for consultations in March after Biden agreed with a television journalist that Putin was “a killer” and said Putin would “pay a price” for its alleged interference during the 2020 elections.
The Biden administration last week expelled 10 Russian diplomats and announced sweeping sanctions against Russia for its alleged elections interference and role in the SolarWinds supply chain hack. It was the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
Russia in response expelled 10 US diplomats and targeted US embassy operations, also recommending the ambassador leave the country.
“It is obvious that the extremely tense situation currently implies an objective need for the ambassadors of both our countries to be in their capitals to analyse the situation and hold consultations,” the foreign ministry wrote in an announcement of its counter-sanctions last week.
While Sullivan was not expelled, it appears that Russian government pressure influenced his decision to leave the country temporarily. The last US ambassador to be expelled from the country was George F Kennan, who was declared persona-non-grata by the Soviet Union under Stalin in 1952.
The US news website Axios earlier reported that Sullivan had previously intended to stay in Moscow, citing two sources briefed on the situation.